We all have different vacation styles. Some of us gravitate toward leisure, others lean into adventure when they’re enjoying time away from home. Those varying interests — and paces — can tend to make traveling as a family a bit difficult as you consider and balance the needs of every member.
But there’s a central Illinois getaway spot that will tick most, if not all, of your family’s boxes when it comes to an unforgettable vacation, with a focus on the outdoors. From foodies and shopping mavens to thrill seekers and athletes, Champaign-Urbana won’t disappoint in the summer. Tucked between Chicago, Indianapolis, and St. Louis, and well-connected by interstates and Amtrak, it’s a snap to get to from just about anywhere.
Here are a few of the reasons why you might want to consider the Champaign-Urbana area as a summer destination spot!
From hiking, walking, and camping to biking and fun on the water, Champaign-Urbana is especially fun in the summer. For starters, the area’s park and preserve system is both scenic and robust, with enough trails and paths to keep you moving no matter your individual fitness level.
Allerton Park and Retreat Center features more than a dozen miles of trails that will take you through prairies, gardens, and forests along the Sangamon River. When you’re done wandering, be sure to check out the historic Allerton residence, built back in 1900 by artist and philanthropist Robert Allerton. Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve also features a gorgeous setting to get those steps in, with a covered bridge, botanical garden, and 2 miles of paved and unpaved trails around Lake of the Woods.
If you’re more of a water baby, the Champaign-Urbana area also has you covered. Cool, clear water in two lakes makes the 275-acre River Bend Forest Preserve a hotspot for both fishing and kayaking. Middle Fork River Preserve is a favorite for swimming and camping is also available. Middle Fork is Illinois’ first and only International Dark Sky Park. Its intentional low light pollution means you’ll be treated to an incredible star show in the evenings.
Bicyclists will especially enjoy Kickapoo Rail Trail, the former CSX railroad tracks turned bike path in Urbana. The nearly 7-mile rail trail is flat as a pancake, offering an easy ride from town to the village of St. Joseph. You’ll see native plants and wildlife, and the best part is that there’s more to come: When complete, the Kickapoo will offer more than 24 miles of scenery for bikers to enjoy from the saddle.
To combine a dose of rich history with your outdoor time, consider stops — and steps — along the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail. The trail educates residents and visitors alike, sparking conversation and expanding understanding. This online resource is accessible to all and includes physical stops plus the stories of people who helped shape the county.
Embrace The Arts
Champaign-Urbana makes it easy for you to get your groove on and embrace your inner culture vulture, especially during the summer when the weather is warm. There are a variety of live outdoor music events, including Friday Night Live, a celebration that continues every Friday evening between Memorial Day and Labor Day among three locations featuring different music styles. There’s also the Allerton Park Concert Series, held on the estate’s lovely lawn once a month. If you want to combine your love of music and nature, head to either Homer Lake or Lake of the Woods Preserves for occasional live music sets. Pack a picnic to make it the perfect day or evening! Finally, the Sipyard beer garden hosts local and regional acts, where they play in shipping crates turned music stages during the summer.
You’ll also have the chance to check out a variety of art galleries in the cities and towns of Champaign-Urbana, which focus on locally produced pieces by master craftspeople and artisans. And to get your sunshine fix in along with the art, make plans to attend the Crystal Lake Park Art Fair. Held in August, this event features more than 40 artisans setting up shop right along the lake. It’s a beautiful setting for artwork that’s just as pretty. You’re bound to find pieces to consider adding to your collection!
Enjoy The Markets And Festivals
For starters, any fan of locally grown produce and goodies will want to check out Urbana’s Market at the Square, held downtown Saturday mornings May through October, rain or shine. The market offers the best fruits and veggies from surrounding farmers fields, along with baked goods and other handicrafts.
On the first Saturday of every month during the summer, downtown Champaign hosts the fabulous Toast to Taylor Street Block Party Series, which features food, music, fun, and plenty of beautiful items for sale from local and regional makers, designers, and artisans. There’s even an onsite beer tent!
Families looking for old-fashioned fun should have the Champaign County Fair on their vacation radars. The late-July event includes rides, games, and fun food, along with livestock competitions, a demolition derby, horse shows, motorcycle races, live mainstage music shows, and even a fair queen contest.
And if you’re craving a sweet, bubbly treat, make plans to attend the Mahomet Soda Festival! This charming outdoor event combines live music, great food, and all sorts of out-of-the-box soda flavors. Historic downtown Mahomet hosts the annual event, which takes place in June. Make your way through the festival and sample endless options from family-owned bottlers across the country. From hot ginger ale to colas and fruit flavors, once you find the soda you like best, you can purchase your favorites to take home and enjoy.
There’s A Taste For Everyone
Champaign-Urbana prides itself on having a diverse and critically acclaimed culinary scene, with a focus on locally grown and produced food. There’s a whole host of international flavors to try out as well, from Filipino to Indian, Italian, and Vietnamese. Barbecue lovers will delight in the many restaurants that serve up saucy delicacies from the grill, and there are also many craft breweries and wine bars across the county. Bottom line, you’re not going to go hungry during your visit, no matter your palate’s preferences. It’s incredibly easy to curate a foodie weekend here the entire family will love. To check out all that’s available, visit Champaign-Urbana’s food guide!
And once the weather heats up, Champaign-Urbana really rolls out its patio season. Many of its restaurants, bistros, cafés, and bars offer al fresco drinking and dining. They’ll be breaking out the umbrellas so everyone can enjoy meals outside with family and friends. Downtown Champaign alone boasts more than 2,000 outdoor seats during the summer season!
Pro Tips: Getting To Champaign-Urbana
Champaign-Urbana is incredibly accessible from major midwestern cities, as it’s located at the crossroads of Interstates 57, 72, and 74. American Airlines serves the county’s Willard Airport, with direct flights daily from both Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth. And Amtrak runs right through the heart of the county, with stops in both downtown Champaign and nearby Rantoul, as well as routes starting to the north in Chicago and terminating south as far as New Orleans. The area is truly in the middle of it all!
While summer is a terrific time to visit, the sun shines hot and direct. Take necessary precautions so that sun doesn’t slow you down: Wear high-SPF sunscreen, perhaps a hat, and by all means, stay well-hydrated. Also, if you’re going to enjoy Champaign-Urbana’s parks, preserves, waterways, and other outdoor amenities (which we highly recommend!), make sure you apply plenty of bug spray and wear light, long sleeves to avoid bothersome bites.